“He wanted to write like Cezanne painted. / Cézanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do. … He, Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be there like Cézanne had done it in painting. You had to do it from inside yourself. There wasn’t any trick. Nobody had written about country like that. … You could do it if you would fight it out, if you’d lived right with your eyes. / It was a thing you couldn’t talk about.”
Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories
Gertrude Stein did this more than a decade earlier, learning from Cézanne how to see. I think of Hemingway often as I read Knausgaard, now reading his fourth book and wondering how his vision is formed. It is writing that gets close to another consciousness, perhaps more than any other writer, yet there is still that distance that comes from the unanswerable question: how does he see? A question that goes back to Altamira and Lascaux.
The value we ascribe to a literary work is as much an effect of its continued circulation in contemporary culture as its artistry. I wish books like Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without were more common, providing productive criticism of works whose value may be overstated. Negative criticism can be destructive but done with discernment contributes much that is useful.
Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne are not in the least bit awed by the ‘greatness’ of any writer and for the most part don’t fall into the object-subject confusion that devils a lot of criticism of canonical writers. No living writers were chosen for their scrutiny (back when the book was published in 1967) so they can also be forgiven for the cold-bloodedness and insensitivity of the criticism. It is perhaps only readers at risk of being torn away from favourite works by cool and intelligent appraisal that risk hurt feelings.
I laughed aloud at the suggestion that Hemingway be recognised only as “a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein, an appendix to the biography of the great novelist Scott Fitzgerald,” as posterity seems to be granting The Big Man that status anyway. I enjoyed the butchery of Melville as “an annotator and labeller” and agreed wholeheartedly that, ” we could easily do without the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner”.
Delicately I agreed with much of the TS Eliot appraisal, even chuckling at this footnote:
General Note. It may be that the means whereby T. S. Eliot prevailed upon the world to mistake him for a major poet was the simple but efficient confidence trick of deliberately entitling one or two of his verses, as though thereby to differentiate them from the rest, ‘Minor Poems’.
I saved until the end witnessing Woolf’s To the Lighthouse being dragged to the abattoir:
But what is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest layer of consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everyone’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace associations. To have those put in a book and called a novel . . . Only dots can do justice to their delight.
I’ll argue that Woolf’s method of immersing us in her character’s minds went further than gossip. There are nuances that the critics here seem to miss or ignore; Woolf’s voice offers a fluidity that gives a seamless quality to the stitching together of many different perspectives. The same argument is made of jazz, that it is pure ornamentation without any inward beauty. Nevertheless there are limitations to Woolf’s method and the argument sends me back to To The Lighthouse to think further, which is the value of such a book (even when almost 50 years old). In today’s sensitive environment though it ought to come with a health warning.
Below is an extended quotation from Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. The book is a beautifully written, lovingly researched, fascinating account of why writers drink. It is one of those discursive, genre-busting books that I enjoy so much. Laing succeeds in offering an alternative way of reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cheever. This passage concerns John Berryman, whom I must read sometime soon.I quote without further comment a passage that continues to play on my mind.
A line came into my head then. It was from another Dream Song. What was it? Something about pieces. ‘The pieces sat up and wrote’? Yes.
Hunger was constitutional with him,
wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up and wrote.
The overwhelming infantile wail of that need need need, too urgent even for punctuation. If you carry that sense of starvation – for love, for nourishment, for security – with you into adulthood, what do you do? You feed it, I suppose, with whatever you can find to stave off the awful, annihilating sense of dismemberment, disintegration, of being torn apart, of losing the integrity of the self.
There are the terrors of the infant waiting for the breast, or they are if you read Freud and Melanie Klein; and these are the terrors of the adult whose childhood sense of security was ruptured before they managed to build a sturdy enough skin with which to face the world. Hardly any wonder that the Dream Songs are so obsessively interested in the state of being skinless or having one’s pelt ripped off or stripped away. Indeed, Berryman once joshed bleakly to his editor about having them bound ‘blue-black’ in scraps of his own skin.
Suspected to be the iceberg that sank the RMS Titanic, there is supposedly a red smudge, like the Titanic’s red hull, near its base at the waterline. In iceberg jargon this would be termed a pinnacle, an iceberg with one or more spires. As we all know, typically only one-ninth of the volume of an iceberg is above water. Thank you for reading my rambling, but why did I get distracted by icebergs?
The theory of omission, which Ernest Hemingway termed the iceberg theory, is what lead me down an internet rathole labelled iceberg. In The Art of the Short Story, Hemingway wrote, “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.” It is this theory that drew me to Hemingway and keeps me reading his work despite the macho posturing that I find tedious.
In That Smell, Sonallah Ibrahim is influenced markedly by Hemingway’s style but in ways takes it further, perhaps because it lacks Papa’s machismo. The short work describes a series of scenes that follow a narrator’s release from jail in prose that is honed with Damascus steel, sufficiently laconic to make Salinger appear garrulous. But even without possessing a deep knowledge of Egyptian politics of the period (the translator Robyn Cresswell provides an excellent introduction) you sense the eight-ninths below the surface of Ibrahim’s carefully constructed prose.
The New Directions edition includes also Notes From Prison, a selection of notes on writing and art from Sonallah Ibrahim’s seven years as a political prisoner. Ibrahim’s prison memoirs have yet to be translated, so with a wish to read more of his work I’ve ordered Stealth.